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Sport Cathy Freeman's 2000 Olympic gold medal night was greatest ever in athletics, say the commentators who were there

23:41  24 september  2020
23:41  24 september  2020 Source:   msn.com

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The stadium is ablaze.

Pinpoints of light from camera flashes sparkle around the crowd of 112,000 people, like stars on the clearest of nights.

There has never been this many people at an Olympic Games athletics session and there hasn't been since.

They're here to see one woman, and the sense of expectation is like an electric current buzzing around the crowd.

It's September 25, 2000 and Cathy Freeman is about to race in the 400 metres.

Australia's two best athletics commentators, Channel 7's Bruce McAvaney and the ABC's Tim Lane (now with 3AW), are here to record history in real time for an audience of millions.

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"It gave a sense of the stars being out on that night and they were in every sense," Lane says.

Because this is a night like no other. Never has one night of competition brought together so many of athletics' biggest names.

"It was an incredible feeling all night. I mean it was an atmosphere of happiness, joy, expectation, it was like a carnival, it was contagious," McAvaney says.

It isn't just Freeman here to make history.

There's American superstar Michael Johnson, aiming to become the first man to win two 400-metre golds; Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie, doubling up in the 10,000 metres and a gripping women's pole vault final that unveils a new Australian sporting star who had come from Russia.

Despite the pulling power of the sport's greatest names, however, this night is all about Freeman and the crushing weight of expectation on her slight, but strong figure.

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First up: Freeman's moment of reckoning

"She was the symbol of the games and reconciliation in the home country," Lane says.

"There was fear almost, because no-one wanted to see her fail in that moment and there'd rarely been an Olympic athlete step out under the sort of scrutiny and pressure that she'd been under."

And she's first up.

McAvaney had already covered several Olympic Games and world championships, and yet his mouth had gone dry.

"I had this feeling … this was something that I hadn't experienced before as a broadcaster," he says.

"I realised that a moment had arrived, and I said to myself consciously: 'Just relax, go slow, enjoy, you've prepared well and do your best.'"

"This is a famous victory, a magnificent performance. What a legend. What a champion." - Bruce McAvaney, Sydney, September 25, 2000

Cathy Freeman crosses the line, finally an Olympic champion, slumps onto the track and pushes her hood off her head. The camera is tight on her face revealing, what? Anguish. Relief. Disbelief. Pain.

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"It was almost perfect in a way because it was just, this weight on her shoulders for four years and suddenly it was released and she had that beautiful moment to herself," McAvaney says.

The moment of enormous tension is over and there's a slight sense of a let-down despite the show that's about to come — Michael Johnson — one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Next: Michael Johnson creates history

"Honestly, there was such euphoria in the stadium it was like the race after the Melbourne Cup in a sense," Lane says.

"I mean people wanted to see Michael Johnson but nevertheless it was anti-climactic in the extreme."

"Out he comes, Michael Johnson, one of the 10 greatest Olympians, track and field, trying to do something no-one else had done," McAvaney adds.

The aim: to become the first man to win consecutive Olympic 400 metres golds.

"Four years earlier he'd set a world record in the 200 metres and blown the field out of the water in the 400 metres," Lane says.

McAvaney adds he was no certainty either.

"He hadn't made the Olympic team in the 200 metres. He certainly wasn't the athlete he was in '96."

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The doubts were unfounded; he surges around the bend and streets away on the home straight.

Then: The 'greatest thing' of the night

The greatest race of the night is next: Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie in the 10,000 metres, as he, like Johnson, tries to defend his Olympic title.

McAvaney almost chokes up as he remembers a stunning race as Gebrselassie was challenged By Kenya's Paul Tergat, who exploded to the lead with 200 metres to go.

"What I remember so much about that race is the courage of Gebrselassie. He had an Achilles problem, he looked beaten a couple of times," he says.

"That last 200 metres for me is one of the greatest things I've seen in sport, to this day."

Lane agrees.

"They just went hell for leather," he adds.

"To see them running so fast at the end of 10,000 metres and Tergat looked as though this time he was going to turn the tables.

"But Gebrselassie, who was the king, just found that little bit extra and was able to get there in the last couple of strides."

"He went from an all-time great to arguably the greatest ever at that moment and he did it through sheer courage, sheer will," McAvaney says.

"It moves me, it even moves me as I speak to you now, to be honest. I get very emotional thinking about that last couple of hundred of metres."

And still, there is more.

Gabriela Szabo from Romania winning the women's 5,000 metres in a stunning final, desperately holding off Ireland's Sonia Sullivan over the last 200 metres.

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McAvaney's co-commentator, Sebastian Coe (now Lord) calls it "one of the best distance races I've ever seen".

Finally: An unknown makes her mark

While history is being made on the track, a tantalising sub-plot is playing out at dizzying heights.

Tatiana Grigorieva was a hurdler in Russia, but after emigrating to Australia in 1997 she took up the pole vault and immediately made her mark, winning the bronze medal at the 1999 World Championships.

But to the average Australian audience she's a virtual unknown as she takes on the hot favourite, Stacy Dragila from the US.

The two battle vault by vault to the backdrop of the track races, before taking centre stage with Dragila eventually prevailing.

"Had it been on its own away from Freeman, Johnson, Gebrselassie, it would have been the absolute highlight of what was a terrific night of athletics," McAvaney says.

"As it turned out, it was part of a jigsaw puzzle that was arguably the night of nights in Olympics athletics history."

As the night ends, the two commentators leave the stadium talking with their colleagues from around the world about what they say was the greatest night of Olympic competition ever.

"Everyone thought that was the best night they've ever been to," McAvaney says.

"I think at the end of the night we all felt that we would never see the likes of it again because it was impossible to imagine the stars could ever align like that again," Lane says.

"Twenty years have passed, and that judgement in my mind stands as true now as it did then."

McAvaney agrees.

"I don't think I've ever seen anything like that, I don't think I ever will."

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